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An interview with Dan Rhodes

(Issue 18, Autumn 2014)

Dan Rhodes, recipient of many accolades for his novels and short stories, including the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the E. M. Forster Award, grew up in rural Devon and now lives with his wife and two children in Buxton in Derbyshire.
   ĎAs a kid Iíd be writing silly stories about space mainly, people dying in space. And I always kind of fancied a writerís lifestyle. I thought it would impress girls ÖWritingís the one thing in life Iíve found that Iím not too bad at so Iíve stuck at it. But since the kids came along Iíve been taking on more and more normal work, moving cardboard boxes or driving vans around. 
   ĎAt the moment Iím trying to flog my last book When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow and meeting with some frustrating resistance. It stars a fictional version of Richard Dawkins, and I published it myself because I had a feeling that publishers would be a bit cagey about taking it on, and also because I wanted to get it out as soon as Iíd finished writing it. I wanted to see if fiction could be almost as immediate as something like stand-up comedy, say. I had a lot of fun writing it. I was able to follow what Richard Dawkins was up to over the weeks that it was set. Finished it in January, slammed it out in February. My agent has had publishers say that they would love to publish it but that they would need a letter from Richard Dawkins promising not to sue, which I think is silly because itís very obviously a caricature of him, and heís a huge champion of freedom of expression anyway.
   ĎI canít write to a deadline. I find that life provides its own deadlines by, you know, diminishing bank accounts, etc. With this one Iíd had the central idea for a couple of years and then once Iíd decided to do it I just banged it out in six months. I couldnít do that all the time. Piles a lot of extra work on my wife because I generally finish work about two and then Iíd work through the afternoon, come home, do some dad stuff and then as soon as the kids were in bed Iíd work again, and work through the weekends as well. 
   ĎI think I can write faster than I used to because I can now identify blind alleys a lot earlier. The novel I wrote before that I wrote really fast. I didnít have a day job at that point so I was able to just bang that one out  in twelve and a half weeks. Itís probably been one of the most enjoyable writing experiences Iíve had.í 
   Rhodesífamily moved to Kent from Devon when he was twelve. His first foray into the publishing world was a job at Waterstones in Tunbridge Wells. ĎIíd just been fired from a pensions company for mucking about. I couldnít take it seriously. Inputting data and all that kind of stuff. Iíd written a few silly little pieces already but nothing that I was seriously considering turning into a book at that point. A new branch of Waterstones was advertising for helpers to unpack boxes and stack shelves before the shop opened. They kept me on, and I soon demoted myself to the stockroom so I didnít have to deal with the general public. It was a good job, just being underground and getting to see all the books as they come in. 
   ĎI was there for about seven years. But I came and went a lot. Iíd occasionally have a leaving do but eventually I had to stop doing that because people would say, yes, youíre leaving but youíll be back in a few weeks. It was quite handy because thereíd almost always be a vacancy in the basement. Usually anyone they got to replace me would pretty much have a nervous breakdown within a few weeks and Iíd just be able to slot back in.í 
   Rhodes sent his first book Anthropology, a collection of 101 short stories all 101 words long, off to various publishers and agents while he was still working in the bookshop. ĎI was knocked back many, many times and then I had a couple of stories accepted for an anthology called New Writing which was published by the British Council, and that was a great calling card. Nobody likes to be the first person to approve a writerís work, they like you to come preĖapproved and so thatís how I got my first deal. You know those recommends bands that you get on books, staff picks? I used to do my own staff picks with my books at Waterstones.
   ĎThe boss of the bookshop got me in to read some of the stories over the tannoy, which I think just slightly alarmed people. Yeah, especially as thereís one that uses the word Ďlesbianí. Apparently it really shocked one of the customers.í 
Rhodes wrote a great deal of the stories in Anthropology while working in his parentsí pub. ĎIt drove me insane with boredom. Friday nights were always good but midweek, when youíre just staring at the same old barflies, it can get quite stultifying. I was a terrible barman. I used to sit there writing these stories and Iíd be really dismayed whenever anyone had the audacity to come in and order a drink because theyíd be interrupting my flow. Iíve still got some of the originals of those stories written out on the free stationery from breweries. 
   ĎEveryone used to say to me youíre going to write a pub novel, arenít you, and I would say, no, Iím not. I really didnít think I was going to. And then I wrote a pub novel years later. Called Gold.í
While working in the pub, Rhodes was supplementing his income on the nearby Cherry Gardens Farm. ĎIt was very good for that as well because I was writing these tiny little stories that were less than a page so I could hold them in my mind until I got back behind the bar where Iíd be able to write them down. I used to get audio books from the library, these great big unabridged Dickens, and listen to them while I was out in the fields. It was pretty gruelling too. The first couple of minutes every day would be gradually getting my hands working again, and Iíd get scratched a lot so Iíd get in the bath at the end of the day and it was like a thousand paper cuts, especially after picking gooseberries. I never want to see another gooseberry as long as I live.í 
   Rhodes spent years on the book circuit, flush with the success of two collections of short stories and his first novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home, which won several awards and led to him being listed as one of the ĎPeople Who Make London Swingí in the Evening Standard even though heíd never lived in London. 
ĎI donít miss that whole life on the road. I did it for a few years and it was great, you know, before I had kids. Iíve been to places I never would have been to otherwise. I met my wife on the road as well so it was successful in that regard. But I donít miss it at all.
   ĎIíve sat on one or two panels and quickly vowed never to do it again. I did one at this short story festival in Cork once. Iíd had a few drinks before I went on and it was a bit of a disaster. I didnít really contribute anything of any great worth apart from maybe sneaking off to the toilet half way through Ö I canít answer questions because Iím very slow on the uptake and I canít usually formulate ideas on the spot so I tend to do just more after-hours kind of gigs. But at the moment I donít like being away from home and Iíve usually got work so I canít go anywhere anyway. The idea of going back on the road would probably appeal to me more if it was something of a victory lap, but quite often you find yourself travelling for 200 miles in each direction and you end up on a railway replacement bus on a Sunday having read to a dozen people in the corner of a bookshop. So I only really do gigs now where thereís going to be a good amount of people and itís going to be a good atmosphere. Like Mariah Carey. Just save myself for the big nights. 
   ĎWhat I really donít want to do is get sucked into the creative writing teaching world. I donít think I could feign interest in books that Iím bored by. And also a lot of stuff that sells I think is awful. Someone coming with On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan Ė Iíd say, well, this is rubbish, whose going to want to read this bollocks? But in real life it sold a million copies so Ö Iím not the man for the job. 
   I really think that no one should teach creative writing until theyíve been published at least 20 years so theyíve got a good stock of experience and wisdom. There is some value to those courses. Good writers get into bad habits and it doesnít hurt to have a boot up your arse. I had a very good tutor who was pretty much always right about the bits that werenít working, and that was very useful. But there are too many of them now. 
   ĎI think what I write is my attempt at commercial fiction really. Itís in the back of my mind that people ought to like it. I donít expect it to catch on in a big way but I do think this should be popular stuff. I suppose I just want to have my cake and eat it really. I want to be able to write books that I am really proud of and people like and Iím really pleased with, but I also would like them to sell in large quantities. But Iíve been around long enough to know not to expect that, so Iím just going to keep on doing what I do and if people come my way then thatís up to them.í